YouTube video

Dr. Jonathan Latham says 95% of table salt contains plastic due to plastics pollution in the oceans

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.

In a historic vote, the European Parliament has just approved, by a huge margin of 571 to 53, a complete ban on a range of single use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. One member of the parliament said if no action was taken, “by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.” The MEPs backed a ban on plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink stirrers and balloons sticks. The proposal also calls for a reduction in single use plastic for food and drink containers like plastic cups.

Other items, where no alternative exists, will still have to be reduced by 25 percent in each country by 2025. MEPs also tacked on amendments to the plans for cigarette filters, a plastic pollutant that is common litter on beaches in the European Union. Cigarette makers will have to reduce the plastic by 50 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2030. Another ambitious target is to ensure 90 percent of all plastic drink bottles are collected for recycling by 2025. Currently, bottles and their lids account for about 20 percent of all the sea plastic, according to the European Parliament.

Now here to discuss this with us is Dr. Jonathan Latham. Dr. Latham is the co-founder and Executive Director of the bio-science resource project and editor of the Independent Science News Website. He holds a master’s degree in Crop Genetics and a PhD in Virology, and he joins us today from New York State. Thanks for coming back onto The Real News, Dr. Latham.

JONATHAN LATHAM: Quite, Dimitri.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Dr. Latham, before we get to the EU plastics ban, let’s take stock of the problem from a global perspective. Not too long ago, there were news reports about a sea of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean that was twice the size of the state of Texas. Why should ordinary citizens be concerned about this form of pollution?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, for one thing, that it gets into the food that you’re likely to eat. So, for example, animals that you eat will be consuming these plastics and then they will get into their stomachs. The other is that it disrupts the ecological chain. Even if you don’t eat turtles or whales, they are necessary for the proper functioning of those ecosystems. So, we depend on these organisms one way or another.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, let’s flesh that out a little bit, if you’ll excuse the pun. This gets into your system as a human being. What are the kinds of health effects that we can anticipate from ingesting these plastics?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, even low levels of plastics can cause endocrine disruption, for example. So, these plastics, if they’re BPA, for example, BPA has all kinds of effects on human systems. And although we haven’t tested its effects on whales or turtles or most fish, you can be pretty confident that it will have effect on their endocrine system. So, even if you don’t eat very much of these plastics, you can expect effects on fertility, for example, and effects on heart function, for example I’ve documented, from BPA. Many, many consequences that are not good, basically.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now the EU’s research on the topic says about 150,000 tons of plastic are tossed into European waters every year. Apparently, that’s only a small contributor to the global problem, with an estimated 8 million tons of plastic entering the world’s oceans annually. If the EU ultimately implements these measures, how far will that go toward solving the problem, and in particular, what countries are the major contributors to plastics pollution in the oceans today?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, I think there are no countries that are immune from these issues. If you go to India these days, you’ll see people burning plastic on the streets just to get rid of it. There are many countries that that do an appalling job of picking up disposable and non-disposable plastics. It’s not really on their radar because they have other concerns. So, the European Union is doing its best in a way. But the fundamental issue is that there are many, many other uses of plastic, so they end up in the ocean and not addressed by this legislation for, example.

So, if you use artificial clothes, you put those in the laundry, then the bits of plastic that are separated from your clothing in the process of laundering will ultimately likely end up in the ocean, little bits of polyethylene and fibers from your clothes, unless you use cotton or wool clothing, that will be contributing to pieces in the ocean.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And if we continue on to business as usual course in terms of our plastic production and consumption, what do we expect – and not just looking at plastics, but the other challenges that ocean confronts today – if we continue on a business as usual path, what we expect, scientifically, the oceans to look like, let’s say in approximately 30 years from now, 2050?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, what that European politician said is based on a scientific study of the amount of plastic that we put into the oceans. But I think that our understanding is that many of these plastics are toxic, irrespective of any other things that they may do so. So, there’s steady accumulation of this stuff on the sea floor, in the ice, in table salt, for example. There’s was a study the other day showing that 95 percent of all table salt has plastic in it, because you’re basically evaporating seawater and what’s left is salt, metals and plastic. So, we can expect the oceans to be a pretty sorry place in 2050 if we don’t do something about this.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, if you were advising global governments about the crisis of plastics pollution in our oceans today, what would you recommend that they do, what would be the major measures you recommend that they adopt in order to address this crisis?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, the simple thing is to use natural products. If you use cotton, wood, wool, and allow natural products to replace plastic products, what you’ll do is two things; you’ll provide work for farmers and useful opportunities in the economy, but you will also put the chemical industry out of business. In the U.S. today, we use 30,000 pounds of fossil fuels to generate the plastics and disposable materials for every single person who lives in this country. So, we are generating huge quantities of plastic and we have to have an economy that doesn’t depend on throwing stuff away.

And so, but what that means is that we have to have an economy which is somehow sustainable. And what governments have basically done is use subsidies to encourage businesses to produce products that can be thrown away; kettles that only last a year, toasters that only last a year, fridges that that don’t last. We have all these products that we produce in the economy that basically are planned as obsolescent and there’s a good reason for that. Because if we wanted to simply provide for everybody one toaster and one kettle and one house and one table or one set of chairs and so on, for their entire lives, we could easily do that, and the planet would thank us, but economy would, as presently constructed, would collapse.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, basically this really gets to the heart of the capitalist system that we constructed it seems. Would you take that view?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Yeah, it does. Because the reason why governments want all this production is because they are relying on skimming off money to pay for military services and to pay for their bureaucracies. The invention of money in the first place goes back to the Romans, for example, wanting to have a surplus that they could then use to defend their empire with. So, this is what the function of the economy ultimately is.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Dr. Jonathan Latham about a major new initiative by the European Parliament to try to get a grip on the problem of plastics in the oceans. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dr. Latham.

JONATHAN LATHAM: You’re welcome. Thank you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at